Once again, East Hampton Town officials are hearing a plea to use the community preservation fund, which has swelled to $23 million, to save a historic property. This time, the request is to save a homestead at the north end of North Main Street in East Hampton, which has been in the Sherrill family since 1792.
The town bought the development rights to 16 acres around the Greek Revival farmhouse some time ago. Now, the family, as well as an informal group of supporters, would like to see the house and the acre it stands on preserved. There will be an open house there tomorrow at 3 p.m. to show the property to anyone interested. Members of the town board have been invited, though they have not expressed support for a deal. Supporters envision a museum that would celebrate East Hampton’s agrarian past — and present. This is an attractive idea, but it presents challenges.
To a certain extent, one difficulty for those who hope the town will buy the farm is that it already has taken on a number of historic properties and not done much with them. Duck Creek Farm at Three Mile Harbor, the Lester farmstead at the corner of Cedar Street and North Main, and perhaps, even more notable, the Amagansett Life-Saving Station. To date, these properties have, to put it mildly, not been used to their full potential, though the signals are good concerning the Life-Saving Station.
Setting any or all of the above up as museums or visitors centers would cost the town real money, but there may be an alternative. In the wake of the McGintee financial scandals, the town has assumed self-imposed parsimony where the preservation fund is concerned. In the current climate, no one appears ready to ask taxpayers to take on a new expense for something nice but not necessary. However, the town might look favorably on acquiring the Sherrill Farm if money to operate it were to come from somewhere else.
There appears to be a ready-made constituency for doing something meaningful with the house — the growing number of farming enthusiasts and those in the slow-food movement here. If a public-private partnership could be worked out, all concerned could ride the wave of locavore zeal. A distinct possibility would be for one of the new community-supported agriculture groups to use the house as its home base, giving staff or interns a place to live upstairs and having meetings and demonstrations on the first floor. Perhaps even the farmers market now held on Fridays in the parking lot at Nick and Toni’s restaurant could move there. The property would be an astonishing opportunity for the right group, perhaps with agricultural use of some of the accompanying 16 acres added to the mix.
As close as one can come to a sense of how town residents would feel about the town’s purchasing the Sherrill Farm comes from voters’ repeated and overwhelming approval of the community preservation fund itself. The economy may have changed since the fund won at the polls, but support could be realistically gauged by putting the proposal before the public at a Town Hall hearing.
Preservation would be only the first step, but we are confident that an end result could be found so that the property remains a community asset rather than being lost to the open real estate market. It may take some doing, creativity, and open minds, but East Hampton should be up to the challenge.